Ex-official wades into election fracas

Steve Benson

A former Basalt town manager has come to the defense of an Aspen Times reporter who was accused of writing a “biased, inaccurate story” about Town Council candidate Mark Kittle.

Tom Baker, who resigned as Basalt’s town manager in early February after five years of service, addressed the Basalt Town Council Monday night about a letter to the editor written by resident Peter Frey.

Baker referred to Frey’s statements in the March 12 letter – which accused Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon of unfairly attacking Kittle, a former town building inspector, in a March 10 article – as “false.”

Betsy Suerth, Basalt’s deputy town manager, was also mentioned in Frey’s letter as a “highly biased witness,” since her ex-husband, Jim Paussa, is running for Town Council beside Kittle.

Baker submitted his own letter contesting Frey’s comments, and a town memo from 2000 to back his statements up, to Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens and members of the Town Council. He included a 2000 town memo about the reorganization of the building department to back his statements up.

“In his letter Mr. Frey made statements about the town staff and how town work is organized,” Baker wrote. “The purpose of this letter is to correct Mr. Frey’s false statements relating to responsibility in the Building and Zoning Area.”

The entire issue can be traced back to March 2003 when Kittle was the town’s building inspector.

At that time, Kittle approved plans for a house he estimated would be 6,037 square feet, even though an ordinance had been passed nearly three years earlier prohibiting houses larger than 5,000 square feet.

Kittle told Condon that he was unaware of the ordinance limiting house sizes. “The only 5,000-square-foot ordinance I was aware of was the sprinkler ordinance,” Kittle said. The sprinkler ordinance requires any structure over 5,000 square feet to be equipped with a sprinkler system for fire protection.

Attempts to contact Kittle for this article were unsuccessful.

How the town’s building inspector could not be aware of an ordinance effecting the building of homes remains unclear.

n see Letter on page A6

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tor could not be aware of an ordinance effecting the building of homes remains unclear.

When Suerth, who joined the town staff in early 2001, was asked if Kittle should have known about the house-size ordinance and been responsible for seeing it was not violated, she said, “absolutely.”

“Planning, public works and the building department work very closely to make sure applicants are compliant with the town and building code,” Suerth said.

The town discovered last fall that Kittle had approved two other homes that exceeded 5,000 square feet. Kittle resigned in April 2003 to take a job as the chief building inspector for the town of Snowmass Village.

According to Condon’s article, Kittle said it wasn’t even part of his job description to verify that houses met the standards set in the section of the land-use code that deals with building size.

Frey defended Kittle in his letter to the editor, asserting that Kittle is being used as a scapegoat for mistakes made by the planning department. Frey also maintained that the planning department was responsible for enforcing the house-size limits.

Baker said in his letter that Frey’s remarks are simply wrong.

“In his letter, Mr. Frey wrote that the Building Department was only responsible for construction inspection related activities and Zoning related matters, which in Mr. Frey’s view was the responsibility of the Planning Department. The facts are otherwise.”

Baker explained that he reorganized the building department in 2000, making it responsible for both building and zoning.

“In 2000, I had lengthy discussions about this reorganization with both department heads (Building and Planning); provided formal evaluations for them individually; and with Council’s direction provided substantial salary increases for each,” Baker wrote.

Jacque Whitsitt, a two-term member of the Basalt Town Council, said Condon, whom she counts as a friend, has always been fair and unbiased with his reporting.

“He interviews both sides always, and I think he was fair on this,” Whitsitt said. “He’s not editorializing, Scott doesn’t editorialize – he gets his information from as broad a base of sources as there is.”

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is